Functionally illiterate young adults hold up empty thought bubbles in need of cognitive skills
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The first time I heard of functional illiteracy, it reminded me of an online article about a dramatic car accident in which four youngsters lost their lives. In that article, only the first five comments had anything to do with the tragedy. The rest of the thread was about the performance of the car itself—and not just the safety features. It seemed that the commenters could not distinguish reality from fiction.

They were functionally illiterate: They could read and write, but confused the simple with the complex.

The prevalence of functionally illiterate individuals in our society is a worrisome and rising phenomenon. University of Tubingen researcher Réka Vágvölgy and her team wrote a paper in 2016 clarifying that simple illiterates “are unable to read or write,” while functional illiterates can read and write, but “are unable to use their acquired literacy skills in daily life.” For example, although the functionally illiterate can read, they cannot fill out an application, understand a tweet or written instructions, or “compare the cost of two items to choose the item that offers the best value.”

Instead of inspiring the search for new experiences and skills, this type of illiteracy may lead to a dull learning style. The result? Weakened cognitive skills that, instead of pushing the acquisition of basic literacy, favor a simpler source of information like social networks and videos. 

This is why functional illiteracy is a worrisome phenomenon. It goes beyond school or job performance—functional illiteracy can create an illusion of skill acquisition.

Society needs real skills, not illusive ones.

The Danger of Illusive Skills in the Digital Age

Michael Kardas and Ed O´Brien from Chicago Booth conducted several experiments to find out more about the phenomenon of illusive skills. During one, the participants repeatedly watched a dance video. Though none of them actually learned how to dance better, they did incrementally come to believe that they could.

Considering the huge amount of information available nowadays, especially in video format, the illusion of skill acquisition through visual processing of new information is spreading fast. People are speaking out, developing stronger opinions, and giving speeches—even classes—on subjects they have interacted only superficially with. What was once just bar chitchat or small talk is now online and being taken as a source of information.

This is not a new phenomenon. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, describes the human need to have a life story based on acceptable facts, not necessarily true facts. But while the problem may not be new, the internet is amplifying defective problem-solving and other cognitive abilities in new ways.

Critical Thinking: Problem-Solving

Problem-solving is a central business skill, and yet it's the one many people struggle with most. This course will show you how to apply critical thinking techniques to common business examples, avoid misunderstandings, and get at the root of any problem.

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The Cost of Supporting Functionally Illiterate Simplicity

Being functionally illiterate isn’t just about basic skill acquisition. People fed by online chitchat can easily develop a narcissistic virtual world in which only like-minded thinkers gather and reinforce each other. This support creates confusion between what is real and what is fiction. We see this in the Flat Earth Society, a conspiracy group that believes the Earth is flat. Similarly, as James Poniewozik warned on The New York Times, people are confusing US President Trump with a television character. Functional illiterates cannot distinguish the simplicity of a TV character from the complexity of a statesperson.  

The dangers of weak cognitive functions are further confirmed by the World Economic Forum’s top five skills to have in 2022: analytical thinking, active learning, creativity, technology design, and critical thinking. These skills are replacing others, such as manual dexterity, working memory, management of financial resources, technology installation, and reading/writing. Without the latest cognitive skills, the functionally illiterate lack the ability to integrate into society.

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That impact has a ripple effect, adding an extra dimension to the expanding wealth gap and generating not just an underprivileged class, but a functionally illiterate underprivileged class.

Though functional illiterates seek out simplicity, it’s complexity that is on the rise in our global society. In our world of data, there is incrementally more and more demand on users. In 2012, Jeanne Harris suggested on the Harvard Business Review that non-academics must understand the principles of scientific experimentation and how to apply them to business.

Essentially, there is no room for functional illiterates in a data-driven world.

Ongoing research on artificial intelligence skills shows that analytical thinking and curiosity are necessary cognitive skills for working with AI. Both skills require a strong ability to reason and ask pressing questions. According to Tom Pohlmann and Neethi Mary Thomas, such questions can be divided into four groups:

  • Clarifying
  • Widening
  • Funneling
  • Adjoining

The art of asking questions seems to be a massive obstacle for functional illiterates and their weakened cognitive skills. Being able to read and write is not enough. The digital age demands sustained attention (not just selective attention) to perform tasks and contribute.

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Fixing the Functionally Illiterate with Cognitive Skills

So what can we do to counteract the alarming rise in functional illiteracy?

Just as simple illiteracy was tackled from primary school decades ago, the same must be done with functional illiteracy today. One advocate of this policy is the new Secretary of State for AI and Digitalization of Spain, Carme Artigas, one of the few women in the world with extensive experience on data and AI. Years ago, before anyone was even thinking about it, she understood the danger of functional illiteracy—not to mention the potential of AI as a business opportunity.

Last but not least, while everyone seems to be worried about the impact of AI on society, there aren’t nearly enough people worrying over how the combination of social networks and functional illiteracy is exponentially simplifying the spread of fake news. This is the phenomenon that is polarizing societies, from the Republicans vs. Democrats in the US to the pro-independence vs. unionists in the Spanish region of Catalonia.

Knowledge has always meant power. But the transition from centuries of information scarcity to the current abundance seems to have ironically taken society back to a time of illiteracy. It will take a period of time to correct the problem, but technology can help. The digital age provides all the tools we need to educate the masses instead of misinforming them. Lifelong learning is the only way to inspire humankind to seek new experiences, learn new skills, and stay functionally literate.

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